Create your context

1. Integrity

“The top priority–trumping everything else, including profits — is that all of us continue to zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation. We can’t be perfect but we can try to be. As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: “We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation.”
Warren Buffet — biannual memo 2014

Freelancers are not superhuman. Being a domain expert still does not protect you from feeling stuck, lonely or inable to focus or — if you leave your comfort zone — to fail sometimes. But if you’re not able to admit this to yourself and your customers, you are setting yourself up for a rough ride. Nobody can blame you for being human, but anyone can blame you for lying and once you break trust it takes a long time and hard work to go back. Nothing trumps integrity. For me, this means being very direct and open to signal trustworthiness. If I think something is stupid, I’ll say it. If for personal reasons I was not able to work on a day I’ll say it — and make sure progress is still made on time. If I am not excited about a part of a project or I feel like something is outside of my circle of competence I’ll say that before a deal is made and instead offer to introduce other freelancers from my network.

These traits might be very German and different in your culture. In any case, you should know how to signal trustworthiness in an appropriate way before you start approaching clients. The baseline here is that it’s natural if you have some downtime and that people don’t have to like you all the time. It is paramount though, that you behave with integrity and the end result is solid.

2. Happiness

Last year, The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (short ipse), a think tank and lobby organization for self-employed in the UK published a study claiming that “freelancing has a “significantly positive” effect on wellbeing”. The first fact I thought of when reading the annoucement is the inherent bias in surveying freelancers. I would be surprised to find freelancers who are not fundamentally happy with their choice who had not gone back to full time employment shortly after. They mention another study on employees, but these generalized results won’t do much for you. The important truth is some people will be comparatively happier freelancing than being employed while others will be comparatively happier with the opposite. I encourage you to read the announcement linked above and go over the reasons for freelancing yourself.

3. Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

I found Dan Pink’s motivation trio to be a good measuring stick for assessing my choice to freelance over time. Subjectively, all three areas improved since I started, and have contributed a lot to feeling more satisfied with my life overall. Which hints to what I believe to be a very important fundamental fact to be aware of when it comes to freelancing. For those who enjoy it, freelancing is not tied to a set of goals, but first and foremost, to a system.

Freelancing is a way of life before it is a career choice.

Assess for yourself: What would you do with the freedom gained by only working three days per week? How much is mastering a new skill or technology a priority for you? Where do you draw your purpose from? And, more importantly, weigh those answers against reality: Does the freedom gained outweigh the responsibility of accounting? Am I resilient enough to handle the discomfort of working with a new technology I have no prior experience with and still deliver a result? Does the impact I have with my work make up for not having team events and sometimes feeling lonely when working solo?

There is no need for you to know the answer to all of those questions before you start freelancing, but it certainly helps to keep them in mind. A core skill you’ll learn quickly in case you don’t have it yet is to feel comfortable with and handle a certain amount of uncertainty. Everybody faces uncertainty (“What will be the ROI of that new analytics project?”) and the only trick I encountered so far to overcome it, is to do it anyways and be able to adapt quickly. As someone I talked to about this year put it well: “You need to first walk through a door to be able to see what lies behind it.”

This is part 2 of 4 posts on the topic.

Part 1: Context, Market & Formalities

Part 3: Skills & Personal Value Proposition

Part 4: coming up